By: Ethan Fuller
Marisa Moseley, Darren Bennett, Joe Jones and Curtis Wilson shared similar raw emotions when they watched George Floyd’s final breaths wrenched away from his body by Minneapolis police officers.
Heartbreak. Terror. Exhaustion.
“You saw him take his last breath right there in front of you,” Wilson said. “The world watched George Floyd die.”
The murders of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others catalyzed a national uprising unseen in the 21st century. Despite a long chain of tragedies related to police brutality, to Boston University’s basketball coaches, this time felt different.
“This happened at a time when the world was at a standstill,” said Bennett, an assistant coach on the women’ staff. “It wasn’t a movie where you eat your popcorn and leave and talk about the movie. This was real life — and people have had the chance to watch it over, and over and over again.”
While the victims’ names echo across the country, the movement for change is backed by centuries of oppression. Peel back police brutality and you find just one layer in the convoluted onion of systemic racism in the United States. Every African-American in every subculture of our nation — including basketball coaching — carries the generational weight of bias and injustice.
“This is the prison-industrial complex,” Moseley said. “This is voter suppression. This is about taxes and redlining and school systems and the way gentrification has taken place, and the systematic pushing-out of Black people from their neighborhoods.”
Moseley, the head coach of BU women’s basketball, is a Jamaica Plain resident and a former BU student. She knows the history of the neighborhood’s rich Black and Hispanic populations. Gentrification is displacing them; the numbers of both Black and Hispanic residents have declined in each census since 1990.
“People came in with money, and they bought up the land and pushed out people … who couldn’t afford what they could afford,” she said. “The systems that are in place — it is so deeply rooted. Those systems are going to take a very long time to dismantle.”
America is awakening to the scope of racism’s toxic effects and finally comprehending the overhaul necessary to right hundreds of years of wrongs.
“[The movement] made me take a harder look at myself — it made me take a harder look at our country and our history,” Jones said. “It forced me to reevaluate what I’m about.”
“Until we make fundamental changes in what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, this is gonna persist.”
Despite the global appeal of basketball, and the unifying potential that all sports share, racism and bias seep into the hardwood.
Discrimination in coaching has been documented heavily in focused spaces such as the NFL. But in college basketball — an amorphous community, ranging from national brands like Duke and UConn to hundreds of mid-major competitors, including BU — injustice is harder to visualize.
Above is a 2019 breakdown by The Education Trust of coaching demographics at Division I non-HBCU schools. Black student-athletes make up the largest percentage of players in both sports. But only 22 percent of head coaches are Black on the men’s side, compared to just 17 percent of women’s basketball coaches (with 12 of that 17 percent being women).
Moseley and Jones know the standards placed on head coaches of color. They may not consciously confront these added expectations every day, but in the backs of their own minds, they know that every game and every conversation holds more weight than their white counterparts.
Most might expect Moseley — a rising third-year head coach who already has a Patriot League Coach of the Year award in hand — to be secure. But as one of the 12 percent of Black females at the helm of a team, she always carries pressure.
“You feel like you have to do everything right,” Moseley said. “I have to make sure the way that I dress, and the way I interact with the media, and the way I speak with donors, and the messaging that goes out from my team … I have to do everything right because traditionally, Black women — we don’t get a second chance.”
Bennett considers himself lucky. In his time with four different Division I schools he has always been on a staff with a fellow African-American coach, providing a level of support. However, he reinforces Moseley’s sentiments.
“There’s certainly a social way that coaches of color have to be cognizant about carrying themselves,” he said. “Socially we have to be aware. What are we wearing? What are we saying? Where are we? What are we doing? How are we behaving?”
Jones said he feels “fortunate” that BU has supported him through the ups and downs of his nine years leading the Terriers. But he knows that in many cases, others don’t have the same opportunity.
One such example: coaching legend Nolan Richardson, who won a stunning 71 percent of his games and led the University of Arkansas to three Final Four appearances and a 1994 national title.
Richardson famously accused then-athletic director Frank Broyles and the local fan base of severe mistreatment towards him and was promptly bought out in 2002. He then filed a race discrimination lawsuit in 2004, which was dismissed. Richardson would never coach in college basketball again.
“That’s what happens to African-Americans at times when they do speak out,” Jones said. “When African-Americans have spoken out in the past, they have had a difficult time being heard. Society has been hesitant to support us.”
Within the double standard lies another implicit bias that maddens both Moseley and Wilson — that Black coaches are brought onto staffs to recruit and add diversity. But do they really know the game?
“We are pigeon-holed as: we’re going to make the relationships with the kids but we cannot do the X’s and O’s,” Moseley said.
Wilson, now in his tenth season as a Terrier assistant, has coached at the Division I level for 25 years at Vermont, Yale and now BU. When he joined the coaching ranks, Wilson battled the notion of being a “minority hire” and a pure recruiter by successfully developing players — for over two decades.
But labels land.
“That’s where you feel like opportunities get passed by,” Wilson said. “Because they feel like this is what this person’s good at, so we’ll keep (African-Americans) in those categories.
“They’ll be the assistants to help get the players and help in practice. And as an African-American, you always feel like, ‘Damn, how do I prove myself?”
Both basketball teams have spoken together often about the recent events and their place in the movement. Each squad has held team-wide meetings and small-group conversations, and the coaches agree that the discussions have been important and productive.
“If you look at it on that macro level, it starts to get overwhelming,” Moseley said. “But if you start at home, in your own area … if you can have those types of conversations, that’s where real change is affected.”
As African-Americans and as coaches, the four feel a deep motivation to step up and create change in their respective leadership roles.
“I have to use my platform to help more people than I’ve helped,” Jones said. “I’ve always tried to do right by my players, but I have to extend myself way more than that now.”
Jones, Moseley and Wilson stamp the importance of the vote at all levels of government. According to a story by Patch, less than 18 percent of registered voters in Brookline (where Jones lives) came out for the recent town elections.
“And that’s kinda how it is [right now],” Jones said. “This is where we can have an impact.”
“A lot of people don’t know the levels of where you vote — who is responsible and how does change happen?” Wilson added. “If you don’t pay attention and you don’t understand those levels, you’re voting sometimes by name.”
Bennett stresses “mentorship-to-leadership.” While opportunity is essential for African-Americans, creating mentorship roles such as A.D. assistants, interns and apprentice-type jobs give young people the knowledge and qualifications to lead down the road.
“Where are there paths being blazed and people being mentored, and then going out and getting jobs?” he said. “I think that part’s really big.”
Collegiate athletes across the country are using their leadership and their platforms in this movement. As the fight for justice continues to hit home with many of the younger generations, BU’s basketball players have been unafraid to use their voices on social media and on the streets. The coaches are proud, but not surprised.
“That’s just what kind of kids they are,” Jones said. “They know people look up to them, and they’re gonna try to do the best they can to help change things.”
But as Jones understands, if change is to truly come, people of all ages and abilities must get involved.
“We have to be a part of the process too,” he said. “I’m 54 years old and I’m not just gonna sit here and wait for the young people. I have to help so that when they get here, it’s a little bit easier for them. ”
Featured image courtesy of Hannah Yoshinaga.